The Hovalin: A real-time synesthesia translator

Written and submitted by Kaitlyn Hova

This guest blog post is by Kaitlyn Hova. Kaitlyn is a professional violinist, composer, full stack web developer, designer, neuroscientist, and core team member of Women Who Code. She is also a synesthete—which means her sensory perception is quite different from what most people experience. Kaitlyn spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016, and you can watch her talk here.


Most people don’t expect their understanding of the senses to drastically change beyond what we learn in grade school: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. I was 21 years old when I made the jarring discovery that none of my fellow students experienced vivid colors and shapes when they heard musical notes. At first, my classmates called this ability “weird”. Actually, I later learned the official term: “synesthesia”! Finding out that you physically experience the world in such a fundamentally different way can feel isolating. However, it turns out that 1 out of 23 people have some type of synesthesia. What if the study of this ability that was once thought to be “strange” is actually the study of the diversity of the average human sensory experience?

Matt and Kaitlyn Hova, co-founders of Hova Labs

I had always wanted to find a way to accurately convey my experience of seeing sound. I believed that if people could see a simulation of my synesthesia in real time they would be able to make the jump to understanding the nature of it. With this idea in mind, my husband Matt and I co-founded Hova Labs three years ago. One of our first projects was creating a real-time sound → color synesthesia translator violin. Imagine a guitar tuner, but instead of the tuner showing the note “C” it shows what I see when I hear the note “C”, which is the color red. Further, imagine that the brightness of the color is driven by the volume of the instrument being played. (I should be clear, the colors that I experience when I hear notes of music are an experience that is unique to me. If we both hear the note “C” and you see blue but I see red, neither of us is “wrong”, we simply have different associations in our brain.)

Creating a synesthesia-translating violin wasn’t easy—it took us a year and a half of prototyping. We could have easily just strapped LEDs on any violin but we had a VISION: a synesthesia translator glowing violin. First, in order to figure out how to drive the lights inside of our violin, I created a color-coded map of a piano. Additionally, we knew we wanted the violin holding the synesthesia-driven lights inside of it to be translucent, yet at the time (2014), such an instrument didn’t exist (or if it did, it was probably way too expensive). Determined to make our vision a reality, we decided to take our concept a step further. We created The Hovalin: our 3D printable acoustic violin.

Piano keys through the eyes and ears of synesthete Kaitlyn Hova

In October of 2015, we released the Hovalin, and we made it available for anyone to download online along with a short shopping list of materials and “how-to” build instructions. Since the launch, we’ve continued to improve the design. You can see me playing our v3.1 design in my TEDMED talk!

After launching the Hovalin, we soon realized that our project had the potential to be a lot larger than we originally thought. Though today’s music education programs are systematically underfunded, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) grants are introducing 3D printers to kids at these same schools. We saw this as an opportunity: why not 3D print your music program?

Creating instruments with 3D printers is a solution that has never existed before. Today, all of the files are available to download for free at hovalin.com. If you have access to a consumer-level 3D printer, the total cost (including plastic, tuning pegs, strings, and bow) is $65. And this is just for one violin. With bulk purchases, we believe that this cost could be reduced drastically.

We already have a pilot program in Oakland, California, and we hope to expand to more schools around the country and the world. We believe that STEM programs can empower kids to solve their problems creatively while supporting the often under-funded music education programs in schools. We attribute our diverse backgrounds in music and tech to creating the Hovalin, and who knows what other great projects will come from kids that are given the chance to think creatively with STEM programs.

If you’re interested in learning more about Synesthesia, I encourage you to check out The Synesthesia Network. Also, you can check out more nerdy violin electronics in this blog post at Hova Labs.

What’s Missing From Engineering and How to Solve It

Sangeeta Bhatia

Sangeeta Bhatia

In her TEDMED talk, Harvard-MIT physician, bioengineer and entrepreneur Sangeeta Bhatia showed how miniaturization, through the convergence of engineering and medicine, is transforming health– specifically, through the promise of nanotechnology for early detection of cancer. She’s also been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. We asked her to share more about her dedication to empowering girls to develop their skills in the STEM fields.

engineering

What we desperately need: the best minds, and their talent.

 

TEDMED:

In addition to your work in bioengineering, medical research and being a professor, you’ve been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in STEM-related fields. How are these two strands of your work related?

SANGEETA:

They are absolutely related! We need the best and brightest minds to realize these kinds of technological visions. The engineering pipeline is only 20-25% female; only 3% of tech startups are led by women. If I look around at the workforce in engineering at the moment in our country, it’s only 11 to 12 percent women. And the data shows that we lose women from this discipline all the way along what we call the ‘leaky pipeline’ that starts at age 11 and progresses all the way through to the workforce and to the board room– presently 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field at all.

Some years ago, some colleagues and I at MIT started this organization, Keys to Empowering Youth, to target girls between 11 and 13 years old, the critical earliest age range at which girls drop out of engineering. We bring them into labs at MIT and other universities where they have hands-on experiences with experiments. Over the course of the day, these girls see how fun, exciting and accessible it can be. They meet women who are college students in the Society of Women Engineers and are a little further up the pipeline than them as mentors. And the girls ask their mentors questions like, What is mechanical engineering? Electrical Engineering? Computer Engineering? What is the job that you hope to do? Is it fun? And we have seen that they can definitely be inspired.

Here are my two daughters, wdaughter 1ho turned 9 and 12 this year, having fun in my lab! We need girls to be inspired, we need them to have mentors, and we need them to have role models. I hope that my talk on the TEDMED stage can inspire more girls all over the world to choose to develop their skills in engineering and deploy them to revolutionize human health. We would all benefit.

TEDMED:

Your lab is known for choosing and training people to work in an interdisciplinary way. How do you go about accomplishing this?

SANGEETA:

We consider ourselves a bioengineering lab focused on impacting human health so we tend to attract people across a spectrum of science, technology and medical expertise. We select people that are ‘best athletes’ in the sense that they’ve excelled in whatever they were doing, they complement our mission, are invested in our approach and play well with others. Once they arrive we tell everyone that they can spend 20% of their time ‘tinkering.’ Over the years, the students have started calling these ‘submarine’ projects. They surface them to me if and when they turn into something exciting. And if they never do, that’s okay too. The point is that science can be full of failure and we need ways to play and stay creative, motivated and engaged. It just so happens that some of our most exciting advances have come out of such submarine projects.

TEDMED:

You’ve spoken about the power of mentors in your own training. Can you talk about a mentor who has had outsize influence on your work and life and how they became such an effective mentor for you?

SANGEETA:

I’ve been fortunate to have a series of very powerful mentors in my training, all of whom saw more for me, at critical moments, than I saw for myself. The most influential mentor is my father who first encouraged me to become an engineer by bringing me to a friend’s lab at MIT to learn about the intersection of engineering and medicine. Later, he would also encourage me to become an entrepreneur. Last year, he was my guest of honor when I was inducted to the National Academy of Engineering and we got to celebrate the journey together. I believe that family aspirations for their children, and especially for young girls, are critically important to keeping the technology pipeline at its fullest.

In graduate school, my academic father, Mehmet Toner, encouraged me to become a researcher and a professor when it wasn’t anywhere on my radar. It’s so important to have people to take the time to say to someone you believe in, “You would be good at that.” As a mentor now myself, I try and remember to do this and I encourage others to do the same. Ultimately, it may be the biggest impact we make.